EMMITSBURG — Mount St. Mary’s arrives at a critical point in its men’s basketball season, one that could propel it toward the top of the Northeast Conference or leave it mired in a pack of teams fighting for at least one home game in the upcoming league tournament.
After going 1-3 on a recent road swing, the Mountaineers (10-14, 6-5 NEC) are back home this week to face two of the top teams in the conference.
They play NEC co-leader Robert Morris (14-11, 10-2 NEC), winners of five in a row, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Knott Arena before hosting third-place St. Francis of Pennsylvania (16-8, 9-4 NEC) at 4 p.m. Saturday.
“We are preparing for each game like it’s the most important one because they all are,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad said prior to Tuesday’s practice. “That’s league play. Every game could shift seeding, could shift matchups. For us, we want to put ourselves in position to be playing our best basketball into March.”
Mount St. Mary’s did not do that on its most recent road trip and now finds itself in a tie with Long Island (11-13, 6-5 NEC) for fifth place. The top four teams earn at least one home game in the conference tournament.
However, Merrimack (16-9, 10-2 NEC), which is tied with Robert Morris for first place, is ineligible for the NEC tournament because this is its first season in the league. So, that pushes everyone up a notch.
More importantly for the Mountaineers, they beat Long Island 67-63 last Thursday to complete a season sweep and earn the tiebreaker should the teams remain deadlocked at the end of the season. That could mean the difference between playing at home or on the road.
The rest of the trip was not as encouraging. Mount St. Mary’s couldn’t get over the hump at Sacred Heart. Then, it fell behind by 34 points at eighth-place Fairleigh Dickinson before a furious rally down the stretch fell a little short. The Mount concluded the trip last Saturday with a 70-67 loss at St. Francis Brooklyn.
The 1-3 trip wiped away most of the gains and good vibes of the four-game winning streak that preceded it, as the team’s maddening inconsistency, particularly on the offensive end, resurfaced.
Both Engelstad and sophomore guard Vado Morse said the team’s attention to detail was lacking, as the Mount shot no better than 41 percent from the field in the three losses.
“We know we played hard. It was just the minor details,” Morse said. “Like paying attention to the scout practices, some things we know that are important. But we kind of didn’t come 100 percent locked in.”
Morse and Engelstad said the focus and energy have been better during practice this week, as Mount St. Mary’s prepares to face a Robert Morris team that plays a physical brand of basketball and is adept at winning close games away from home.
The Colonials are 5-1 in NEC road games this season, as opposed to the Mountaineers’ 2-4 mark.
Robert Morris is also 3-1 in NEC games decided by five points or less. Mount St. Mary’s is 3-4.
“They are a very talented team,” Engelstad said of the Colonials. “They shoot the ball really well. They have tough guards in [brothers Josh and Jon Williams]. Their [forwards and centers] are so physical and tough. You can tell that Coach [Andy] Toole really likes his team this year because they play the way he wants to, bully ball, very strong in the interior.”
Engelstad added, “It’s a team that, if we want to be around at the end, we are going to have to compete against and beat.”